Joe Biden and other NATO leaders previously ruled out the possibility of the Western alliance's direct involvement in the conflict. But as Russia mounts pressure on Kiev, some argue that NATO's stance may change.
As Russia's attacks on Ukraine are becoming more vicious, NATO leaders recently gathered to discuss their options regarding Moscow’s relentless onslaught.
On March 18, Poland, a NATO state, made a bold demand, asking NATO to send peacekeeping forces to neighbouring Ukraine and deter the Russian attacks. The statement raised stakes in the ongoing fight, signalling a debate in NATO on the possible intervention in Ukraine. The statement came a week ahead of an extraordinary NATO summit held in Brussels on March 24.
If NATO deploys a peacekeeping force in Ukraine, “then, of course, it would counter Russian troops. You would have NATO troops at war with Russian troops,” says Matthew Bryza, the former US diplomat to Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic.
“This idea is being rejected out of hand for now across NATO," says Bryza, adding that if Russia's military action continues, "the humanitarian crisis deepens, they may come to a point where NATO collectively decides to do something like Poland is suggesting,”
US President Joe Biden has repeatedly said that the Western alliance will not get involved in the bloody conflict as long as Russia does not target NATO territories. His stance was mirrored in yesterday’s NATO summit, where more sanctions against Russia were announced, and no word on any military option was spoken.
Moscow was quick to condemn Poland's peacekeeping proposal, warning that it would lead to a direct clash between Russia and NATO. The Polish proposal came after Moscow’s recent use of its newly-developed hypersonic missile technology on Ukrainian army barracks and bases close to the Ukrainian-Polish border, which raised eyebrows in some Western capitals.
The event, however, raised the possibility of a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO. At the same time, the Russian military action keeps dragging on in major Ukrainian cities and next to the outskirts of Kiev, reducing most of the public infrastructure to rubble with constant bombardment. Millions of Ukrainians have already fled the country, taking refuge in neighbouring countries like Poland and Moldova.
It’s interesting that the peacekeeping proposal is coming from a country with a notable history with both Ukraine and Russia. WWII began after Nazi Germany invaded Western Poland as the Soviets occupied Eastern Poland, which is now part of Western Ukraine, in 1939.
While the UK and France promised “to intervene on behalf of Poland” in the 1930s in the case of any foreign force invading it, they did not live up to their promises to protect the Eastern European country, says Bryza. During the NATO summit on Thursday, that crucial memory might have hovered over the halls of NATO headquarters, troubling Western leaders in Brussels.
Despite brewing tensions between the two sides, Gregory Simons, an associate professor at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University, finds a NATO intervention “unlikely,” owing to the realistic possibility of a direct war with Russia, which would create a collective risk against the alliance.
“They are more likely to continue with weapons supplies, diplomatic support and political support. They seem to want a longer war to wear Russia down with talk of Ukraine being Putin's Afghanistan,” Simons tells TRT World.
But the recent use of hypersonic missiles against Ukraine close to the Polish border has angered many establishment figures in Washington. It cannot be considered part of conventional war, according to Laurence Kotlikoff, a prominent American economist with Ukrainian roots who has advised Russian think-tanks and the Kiev government.
“We need to have very vigorous markers [for Russians] saying no more hypersonic missiles,” Kotlikoff tells TRT World. If Russians fire another hypersonic missile on Ukraine, the US should consider it a declaration of war against NATO, according to Kotlikoff. “Something like that needs to be said publicly, today,” he says.
But other analysts find the use of hypersonic missiles no more than a show of strength to gain “some momentum.” They also believe that Russia might be running out of its stocks of regular missiles, and as a result, it might resort to using hypersonic weapons against Ukraine.
Kotlikoff also believes that the US needs to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine if the conflict does not end in the next two weeks. But declaring the no-fly zone over Ukraine means shooting down Russian warplanes, which also means a fight with Moscow. Putin already warned that declaring the no-fly zone would be considered by Russia “as participation in an armed conflict” against Moscow.
The American professor also believes that Biden’s non-military Ukraine options should be updated in accordance with ground realities. “I think at this point it’s a mistake,” he says, referring to the US president’s non-military involvement. Recently, Biden announced that any chemical attacks by Russia "would trigger a response in kind."
Believing Ukrainian resistance can defeat or exhaust Russian forces can not be considered as a real scenario because Russians can move other troops into Ukraine, Kotlikoff says. As a result, in the face of the growing refugee crisis and Russia’s Syria-like warfare, Kotlikoff thinks Biden needs to “announce the limits of his patience and that of NATO.”
Is WWIII a real possibility?
A NATO intervention in Ukraine would also have the serious potential to trigger WWIII in a location fatefully close to where WWII started. “Yes, we are on the brink of WWIII,” says Kotlikoff.
Simons also believes that if NATO takes the Polish peacekeeping force proposal seriously, “it would certainly create more fertile grounds” for triggering WWIII. “It would put a NATO member's troops in the firing line, and then matters can very rapidly escalate from there,” he says.
The triggering points of both WWI and WWII were located in Eastern Europe, and Ukraine is also part of that precarious neighbourhood. While Russia does not want NATO expansion close to its borders, the Western alliance refused Moscow’s demand to withdraw its boundaries to those of 1997, regarding its Eastern European members.
In order to block Putin’s “ambitions” regarding Eastern Europe, from a NATO perspective, he must be stopped in Ukraine, says Bryza. But a lot of countries like Germany are still frightened by Moscow’s military power, he adds. Kotlikoff also thinks that if NATO does not stand up to Putin’s Ukraine attack, he will later target other Eastern European countries.
But Simons believes that at this point, Russia will not go after other countries “as the main priority is Ukraine” and attacking “countries in NATO or EU carry much additional risk for Moscow with no real reward.” Also, he says that Russians have no real military capability and capacity to attack those states. But Westerners want to promote the Russian threat narrative to create “fear to engineer public consent,” he adds.
While Bryza is not sure about the definition of WWIII, he thinks the Russians would be losers of any possible fighting. “If NATO troops were on the ground in Ukraine, they would clash with Russian troops. My guess is they would quickly destroy Russian troops on the ground,” he says.
“Russian troops have proven to be unprecedentedly ineffective in terms of modern warfare and combining armed operations, rapid nimble strikes to capture the capital city and decapitate the government,” he says, referring to the ongoing Russian attack.
But a Russian defeat would trigger Putin to use nuclear weapons on the battlefield, he adds. Bryza believes that as long as Russia does not use chemical or nuclear weapons, the alliance troops will not be in Ukraine. He thinks that the Russians might use nuclear weapons in keeping with their military doctrine, which is “escalate to de-escalate.”
“In other words, if you are Russia and in a conventional war with an opponent and losing, you escalate that conflict to the nuclear or chemical level to intimidate your opponent into giving up.” In the case of the use of nuclear weapons by Russia, the world would end up having “a whole new type of conflict,” in which “the world would unite against Russia,” he says.